Kungas, a mix of female donkeys and male Syrian asses, were powerful, expensive animals that were bred 4,500 years ago in Mesopotamia.
A new DNA-sequencing study reveals the origins of the kunga, a large, strong animal that was a cross between a donkey mother and a Syrian wild ass father. Historically, kungas were the first animals to be bioengineered by humans.
The authors note that there were references to the kunga on cuneiform tablets and seals before the introduction of domestic horses in Mesopotamia in the late third millennium BCE, as intentionally bred, highly valued equids that were used in “diplomacy, ceremony, and warfare”.
Yet while there were references to the kunga, modern scientists did not know its precise zoological classification. That is, until recently. “[The] morphometric analysis of equids uncovered in rich Early Bronze Age burials at Umm el Marra, Syria, placed them beyond the ranges reported for other known equid species,” they write in the Science Advances journal.
The team of scientists reported: “[We] sequenced the genomes of one of these ~4,500-year-old equids, together with an ~11,000-year-old Syrian wild ass (hemippe) from Gobekli Tepe (southeastern Turkey) and two of the last surviving hemippes.” Based on their findings, they were able to conclude that “kungas were F1 hybrids between female domestic donkeys and male hemippes, thus documenting the earliest evidence of hybrid animal breeding”.
The Syrian wild ass did not make it to the modern ages, as it was “the smallest of all modern equids until the subspecies went extinct early in the 20th century”.
With a value of up to six times the price of a donkey, large-sized kungas were “used to pull the vehicles of ‘nobility and gods’”. The researchers write: “[T]heir size and speed made them more desirable than asses for the towing of four-wheeled war wagons, which predate horse-pulled chariots.”
As for smaller sized male and female kungas, they were used in agriculture, “where they were frequently reported pulling ploughs”.
Kungas were difficult to come by, as Syrian wild asses (hemippes) were difficult to capture and breed, with an “untamable, aggressive nature”. Researchers found: “[They were bred] at Nagar (modern Tell Brak, an ancient city in modern day Syria), in northern Mesopotamia, whose rulers also provided them as gifts to the elites of allied territories.”
Syrian wild asses were captured and kept in captivity, the New York Times notes, even though they were difficult to conquer. Eva-Maria Geigl, a specialist in ancient genomes at the University of Paris, and one of the scientists who carried out the study, says that the director of a zoo in Austria, where the last captive Syrian wild asses died, described them as “furious”.
Kungas existed before horses were domesticated in Mesopotamia. The name Mesopotamia means ‘between two rivers’ in Greek, referring to the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, now divided between Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
An earlier study published in Science Advances posits that domesticated horses were “introduced into the southern Caucasus and Anatolia during the Bronze Age”, at the end of the third millennium BCE. This timeline makes kungas a predecessor to the domesticated horse.
Kungas were sterile, like mules – donkey/horse hybrids. Thus, it was necessary for a female donkey to be impregnated by a Syrian wild ass every time for a kunga to be bred. Kungas could not interbreed.
Dr Geigl says the breeding of kungas was really “early bioengineering” that developed into a kind of ancient biotech industry.
The teeth of the 44 kunga skeletons, according to the New York Times: “Showed bit marks and indicated that they had been fed a special diet. The new research used DNA from those kungas to compare them to other species and determine that these animals were, as suspected, the result of breeding female donkeys and male Syrian wild asses.”
THUMBNAIL IMAGE: Hybrid kungas were powerful, expensive animals that were bred 4,500 years ago in Mesopotamia.
MIDDLE IMAGE: Iconographic and textual depiction of the kunga. (A) Third millennium BCE cuneiform signs for the kunga (ANŠE.BARxAN) above a photo and drawing of a clay tablet from UrIII Girsu/Lagaš (British Museum BM23836) featuring multiple occurrences, highlighted in the juxtaposed drawing. The first two lines read “transmitted barley plots of 1 bur 6 iku (=8.64 ha) in area, (for the keeping of) ANŠE.BARxAN — equids of the king” (drawing and translation courtesy of K. Maekawa). (B) Detail from the Standard of Ur shows an equid team pulling a four-wheeled wagon in battle (photo credit: The British Museum Images). (C) Image of a rein ring with decorative equid from a royal grave at Ur, contemporary and similar to those visible in the Standard of Ur. (D) Nineveh panel: “hunting wild asses” (645 to 635 BCE) (British Museum, London). Figure S8 shows additional panels attesting that the equids depicted are noncaballine. (C and D) British Museum, London; photo credit: E. Andrew Bennett.